Egypt On The Brink

Ill-considered policies are making the country’s many problems worse

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Three big Egyptian stories have been making headlines in the Arab and international media in recent days – not merely due to their importance and serious implications, but also because they reflect an ill-considered approach to policymaking that could have a negative impact Egypt’s security and stability in the medium to long terms.

The first story was the leaking to an Istanbul-based Egyptian opposition TV channel of an audio recording of an Egyptian intelligence officer – identified as Capt. Ashraf al-Khouli – conveying instructions to a number of Egyptian television presenters to refer to Ramallah, rather than Jerusalem, as the capital of Palestine. This confirmed an earlier report in The New York Times about the issuing of such directives.

Then came former general Ahmad Shafiq’s withdrawal of his candidacy for the forthcoming presidential elections. Shafiq released a statement announcing that he had concluded, after considering his prospects of success or failure, that he would not currently be the ideal candidate for the post. He insisted that he had not been subjected to any pressure to stand down, but did so purely out of considerations of the national interest.

The third item was the eruption of the political and diplomatic dispute between Egypt and Sudan over the border enclave of Halaib. This followed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Khartoum, where he signed an agreement on economic, security and military cooperation with the Sudanese government that provided for Turkey to develop tourist facilities on the Red Sea island of Suakin establish a military base there. The Egyptian government reacted by deploying forces to prepare for a possible attack on Suakin and to strengthen Egypt’s control over the Halaib Triangle and Shalateen, according to Sudanese sources – though denied by the Egyptian authorities.

Egypt’s State Information Service issued a categorical denial of the story about the media directives and claimed that the intelligence officer named was fictitious. But for many people, ourselves included, that was not the point. In recent decades, the Egyptian media have never been independent or free. Like their counterparts in most of the rest of the Arab world, they invariably follow official guidelines in their coverage of events. The brief period that followed the victory of the Egyptian revolution and the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was an exception. But since Field Marshal Abdel Fattah as-Sisi was elected president with more than 97% of the vote in 2014, the state’s grip on the media has become tighter than ever. Many of the country’s best journalists have either gone into exile or opted for involuntary retirement to avoid arrest.

Shafiq’s withdrawal from the presidential contest – which The New York Times said was made under duress, though his official spokesman denied that – says much about the future of democracy and civil liberties in Egypt, and the integrity of the presidential polls due later this year. It is becoming increasingly obvious that, even though Sisi has yet to announce his own candidacy, the Egyptian authorities do not want any strong opponent to challenge him for the presidency in a free and fair vote.

After Shafiq announced in late November that he might stand, he was summarily deported from Abu Dhabi, where he had been living, and was placed under five-star detention in the Marriot Hotel in Cairo – rather like his Saudi counterparts in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton.

Another presidential hopeful, Col. Ahmad Qansuh, was less fortunate. He was arrested and thrown into jail for announcing his intention to stand, the charge being that he had expressed political views while wearing military uniform.

The same fate, if not worse, could await the third candidate, the campaigning lawyer and working-class champion Khaled Ali. He fiercely opposed Sisi’s ceding of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, as did the other candidates, and now faces a charge of offending public morals, which is likely to land him in prison and thereby nullify his presidential candidacy.

There remains a fourth candidate whose fate remains unclear: Muhammad Anwar as-Sadat, grandson of the former president and a former member of parliament. He was removed from that position after criticizing the regime, and it is widely believed that the files are being searched to find a corruption case to level against him – which should not be hard to do – and thereby disqualify him as a candidate.

As for the third story, the dispute between Egypt and Sudan is not new in itself. But Erdogan’s visit, the Sudanese president’s recall of his ambassador from Cairo, his joining of the Turkish-Qatari alliance, and the handing of Suakin to Turkey all pose serious headaches for the Egyptian authorities and Sisi — especially after they thought they had enlisted Sudan as a strategic ally in negotiations over Ethiopia’s Nahdha Dam so as to safeguard the two countries’ shares of water from River Nile.

According to the recently published book on the Trump White House, Fire and Fury, the US president was advised by his former chief strategist Steve Bannon that Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia, was a country “on the brink”. It is ironic that the two Arab countries friendliest to Trump should both be pursuing policies at home and abroad that provide ammunition to their enemies and could lead to their own destabilization.

The Egyptian people, who will soon be celebrating the anniversary of the revolution in which they overthrew a dictatorship, aspire to democracy, civil liberties, social justice, the combating of corruption and equitable distribution of wealth. But their freedoms are being eroded, democracy is in retreat, legislative and presidential elections are less transparent than ever before, and the cost of living – echoes of Iran here — keeps rising inexorably.

In addition to its economic and social malaise, Egypt faces a bloody terrorist challenge against which it is waging a ferocious war in both the east and the west of the country, and political tensions are sky-high. This all amounts to a recipe for an explosion if these crises continue to fester and are not addressed wisely. Using the iron fist alone is not the best method to employ.

The forthcoming elections will be the true test of the Egyptian authorities and specifically of Sisi. The signs so far indicate that they will not be as transparent as they need to be, and this impression is reinforced by the curbs imposed on media freedoms  — which are so obvious they need no leaked recordings to prove —  and on would-be candidates.

We want Egypt to be stable and secure and its people to prosper, and for it to overcome all its crises. For Egypt is the Arabs’ mainstay and the leader of the region. But regional leadership has to be based on the foundations that once enabled Egypt to assume a pioneering and principal role. Chief among these is the recovery of its independence in foreign policy, standing up to the Israeli challenge and US support for it, relying on the Egyptian people and their patriotic spirit, and heeding their demands for freedoms and social justice.

It may seem like a waste of breath to propose this. It may be mere wishful thinking, that will be ignored or perhaps ridiculed. No matter. For rulers come and go, but Egypt will remain — for us and for its good and generous people.